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From Awareness to Action: A Case Study of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption's Philanthropic Strategy

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Document date: September 01, 2010
Released online: October 28, 2010


The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption was created in 1992 to increase adoptions from foster care in North America. A decade later, the Foundation concluded that it needed to change its philanthropic approach to achieve that goal. In response, the Foundation launched the Wendy's Wonderful Kids initiative, in partnership with Wendy's, to implement and evaluate an alternative method to finding families for hard-to-place children. This case study examines the Foundation's philanthropic strategy to enhancing its effectiveness, identifies lessons that may help other foundations, and draws implications for the respective roles of private and public initiative in addressing major social issues.

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The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption was created in 1992 with the goal of “dramatically increasing the adoptions of the more than 150,000 children waiting in North America's foster care system.” A decade later, trustees and staff remained committed to this goal—but with more children entering the foster care system than leaving it, they concluded “we're not winning.” In response, they decided the Foundation had to expand beyond its former strategy of raising awareness about adoption. Thus, in 2004, the Foundation launched the Wendy's Wonderful Kids initiative, in partnership with Wendy's. The initiative's purpose was to implement and evaluate an alternative method of recruiting permanent families for hard-to-place foster care children. Foundation trustees, staff, and grantees agree that the initiative has helped to find adoptive homes for children who would otherwise still be in the foster care system. In 2007, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption was awarded the Adoption Excellence Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for Wendy's Wonderful Kids.

In order to reach this point, the Foundation not only had to reconsider how to bring about change in the foster care system, it had to reconsider its approach to philanthropy. This case study examines the philanthropic strategy that emerged from that process and identifies lessons it may offer for other foundations wishing to enhance their impact. The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption is relatively modest in size. Its assets were less than $8 million at the time it launched Wendy's Wonderful Kids. Its strategy offers one model for how other small foundations can mobilize their financial resources to try and have an impact on important social issues. Essential to this strategy are to identify and focus on one specific issue, to develop a deep knowledge about it, and to remain committed to it over the long-term. The Wendy's Wonderful Kids Initiative represents this approach as applied to foster care adoption, but it is also an approach that can be applied to other fields. Larger foundations that span multiple issues may find it a useful strategy for some subset of their programs.

The Foundation adopts a business model in its philanthropy, through its emphasis on producing measurable results (numbers of children adopted). However, the Foundation always does this within its guiding framework of focusing on harder-to-place children, and its willingness to take the time necessary to achieve that goal. Grantees therefore do not feel pressured to produce higher adoption numbers by focusing on easierto- place children or by putting children into homes that may not be suitable. The Foundation can take this approach because it combines business principles with a deep professional knowledge of the foster care adoption field. It uses that knowledge to modify the business model. While holding grantees accountable for performance, the Foundation also makes a commitment to continue to provide them with support. Thus, Wendy's Wonderful Kids grants are made for a one-year period, but grantees and the Foundation understand that the grantee will be renewed as long as progress is being made.

The way in which the Foundation adopts business principles offers timely insights for the foundation field. As foundations have increasingly focused on ways to enhance their effectiveness, they have turned to the business sector for models and required grantees to produce quantitative evidence of success. The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption's model offers an important lesson for those considering this path: while business principles can be usefully incorporated into philanthropy, they should not be applied in a wholesale or rigid fashion to organizations that function in very different fields. Rather, these principles must be adapted in ways that are applicable to a nonprofit's particular focus. In that way, quantitative results won't become the tail that wags the dog.

The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption made a strategic choice about how to approach a major social issue, namely finding suitable adoptive homes for hardto- place children in foster care. The Foundation decided to support an innovative method of finding families for these children. In doing so, the Foundation's approach points to supporting experimentation and innovation as one important role for the private sector. Yet this role has its limitations. The Wendy's Wonderful Kids' recruitment model is labor intensive and costly. Therefore, sustaining and expanding the use of the model would require funding far beyond the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption's financial resources—and most likely beyond the resources of private philanthropy. By contrast, the funding required appears far more modest when compared to the government's current expenditures on foster care and adoption. From the government's perspective, it may be both feasible and helpful to allocate a portion of expenditures to promote wider use of this recruitment model, as a more effective strategy for finding permanent homes for hard-to-place children. Were this to happen, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption's philanthropic strategy could someday also provide a case study of how the private and public sectors can work together to develop innovative solutions to major social issues that neither sector can solve on its own.

End of excerpt. The entire report is available in PDF format.)

Topics/Tags: | Children and Youth | Families and Parenting | Nonprofits

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